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Edinburgh Festival 99 Friday, 13 August, 1999, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Oh my God, they killed Norman
Bob Godfrey in 1974 with the unsurpassable Roobarb and Custard
BBC News Online's Edinburgh Festival correspondent Matt Grant talks to Bob Godfrey - dubbed Britain's godfather of animation - about his return to the Edinburgh Film Festival with his comedy shorts The Many Deaths of Norman Spittal.

Can you name the cartoon character who first became known for comedy based around his repeated deaths?

Wrong.

South Park may have popularised the slogan: "Oh my God, they killed Kenny."

Norman Spittal: Inventive in death
But years before that cartoonist Jeremy Banx was inflicting many deaths on his creation Norman Spittal.

The series then grew into the book, The Many Deaths of Norman Spittal. And it has now sprung to life in a short film to be shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Banx admits to having been staggered when he first realised the parallel.

"Norman, the book, came out long before South Park and when I saw this 'many deaths of Kenny' I nearly died," he says.

Meet the godfather

The man who made the film possible is Bob Godfrey, the brains behind children's TV favourites Roobarb and Custard and Henry's Cat, also dubbed the godfather of British animation.

Taking the art of the unicycle to an extreme
Godfrey recalls the first time he met Banx. He says: "I was waiting for somebody with three heads to come in but he looked perfectly normal. I was expecting a Frankenstein monster or something."

But once he began working on the project, he says he found it invigorating to take on something - and someone - out of the ordinary.

"Jeremy doesn't know anything about animation, so he brings a completely fresh approach into it," Godfrey says.

Edinburgh Festival 1999
"We'd say, you can't do that. And he says, well I don't see why not? This sort of thing goes on all the time.

"And he's very funny, although sometimes something that's hilariously funny to Jeremy is not funny to anybody else."

Funny 150 times over

The Many Deaths of Norman Spittal film is composed of 150 segments, or jokes, each lasting just 12 seconds. Clearly pushed for time, the film festival has slashed this back to just 60 slots.

Norman Spittal: Finding new and challenging uses for everyday tools
Despite the film's short span, Godfrey insists it has not been a simple process.

"Animating Jeremy Banx is not easy because each one is a kind of geometrical exercise. A hell of a lot of work goes into it actually because they are so meticulous.

"It's a whole different discipline that has to be applied to these jokes. It's got to be funny 150 times."

Funding for the project also proved torturous, with executives questioning just how much funnier the cartoons actually were simply because they now moved. At one point, MTV stepped in, but they then fell out over merchandising rights.

Godfrey says: "I find generally that young people or festival crowds love Norman Spittal, but other people at the networks say, well it's only 12 seconds, isn't it."

Roobarb and Custard forever

The film appeals to both young and old, he says, in much the same way Roobard and Custard was secretly watched by many adults.

"The thing about Roobarb was that it actually appealed to the parents as well. I mean, it wasn't infantile, it was quite sophisticated actually.

Roobarb: Broad appeal
"Norman Spittal, of course, is adult, but young kids like - they like anything to do with someone getting deaded.

"In South Park now there's the same thing every week. It's not the sort of thing that Walt Disney go in for, they tend to shy away from those kind of things but the kids don't."

Godfrey says he watches South Park but finds the animation too economical. "I'm all for simplicity but that takes simplicity to a lunatic extreme," he says. "I'd rather see more work."

Godfrey himself is clearly no stranger to hard work. At 77, he is still at his desk each day and is currently rushing to finish a millennium project on the past 1,000 years by November.


But he will probably remain best loved by many for his children's programmes and in particular the remarkably zany Roobarb and Custard.

"It just worked because it was based on a real dog," he says.

"The dog existed - it was a mad Welsh retriever or something.

"It wasn't contrived, it was actually inspired by this dog and I think Grange (Calverley, the scriptwriter) was trying to think like the dog. I like it because it's very very simple and it doesn't date because there's nothing to date in it."

See also:

30 Jul 98 | Entertainment
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